A piece by Johann Hari appeared in The Independent at the beginning of this week, largely culled from a longer review by him - for Dissent - of Nick Cohen's recent book. One might think that after the critical mauling he's already taken from Oliver and Eric, and the reservations expressed about his article, albeit less severely, by Gene at Harry's Place, there couldn't be much left to say. Well, Johann's article is a rich seam and I have two or three additional points.
I'll begin, however, with one that has already been registered, just for the way it introduces the misshapen character of the map of contemporary left opinion which Johann provides. The point is that he simply repeats the falsehood that the Euston Manifesto is a document of 'the pro-war left'. This has been answered many times, so all I will do here is reiterate something I've said once before and give it especial emphasis. Perhaps the best-known signatory of the manifesto was Michael Walzer, and he opposed the war. I won't speak about who Michael Walzer is or about the nature of his scholarly and moral reputation, but it's something I presume Johann would know about. One is to believe - is one? - that Walzer is a man who would have signed the Euston Manifesto without understanding its content. The inference is more plausible that, being neither stupid nor dishonourable, he had read what the manifesto said and had no interest in misrepresenting its meaning. That inference may then be generalized to those other signatories of the document - including two people involved in the drafting of it - who were also not supporters of the Iraq war.
Just as he obscures the genuine contours of Eustonian opinion, treating it as 'pro-war', Johann narrows the range of the Eustonian left's critical targets. Over Iraq, he twice suggests, the only figure we have any quarrel with is George Galloway. Pull the other one. Those on the left who openly looked forward to a coalition defeat in Iraq, or openly supported the so-called 'resistance' in that country as it perpetrated one atrocity after another, may not have been very many. But there have been far more whose 'anti-imperialism', anti-Americanism and/or hatred of the Bush administration sometimes led them into a rather too 'understanding' attitude towards the ugliest forces opposing the US and Britain in the Middle East and to focusing nearly all of their hostility on to 'Bush and Blair'. Johann himself undercuts his only-Galloway claim when saying, in connection with women's and gay rights and Madeleine Bunting, that 'much of the left had abandoned this core instinct'. The instinct in question? That of 'solidarity with suffering strangers', of fighting against fascism. Johann's own words: much of the left. He doesn't know exactly how much, and neither do I. But however you slice it, much is much, and it extends beyond George Galloway.
Something Johann says in his review of What's Left? is instructive in this regard. He asks: 'Why do you have to pick a side between two forces that repel you?' The question is addressed to Nick, but it can be applied in modified form to the anti-war left as well. A question I have put several times and have not heard an answer to is this: why did not more people who felt they couldn't support the war in Iraq also not oppose it - in view of the plain fact that opposition meant leaving Saddam's regime in power, free to continue torturing and murdering Iraqis? OK, they judged the consequences of the war would be worse than the consequences of leaving Saddam in power. But too many of them in doing that, even without taking the side of Saddam's regime or of the subsequent Iraqi 'resistance', were rather more focused and vehement in their animus against the war effort and those prosecuting it than they were in expressing solidarity with democratic forces in Iraq or expressing anything much at all about the enemies of democracy there.
And others of us - including Johann - made the estimate that the Baathist regime was so monstrous that the outcome of a war, even one waged by the Bush administration, was unlikely to be worse than what preceded it. Johann now reads this alignment as a wholesale embrace of US imperial power and of the neocons. In this he's more damning of his own past than of his present - which is not all that uncommon amongst people who used to be blind but are now saved. But insofar as he's talking not of his own alignment, but of the alignment of others, he might just as well go sing for his supper: each of us knows who we are and where we stand, and will not necessarily take it on Johann's word that we have become neocons, or that we ignored, just for example, a 'policy of systematic torture'.
One personal word in conclusion. Johann speaks about 'recantation' on the part of some on the pro-war left, including me; and he speaks of others who haven't recanted. It might seem to be making rather much of an innocent word if I say in response: the hell with that. I changed my mind about the Iraq war, in the way I explained here. I said that had I been able to foresee the scale of death and social breakdown the war was to bring I would not have supported it. I stand by this change of mind. But I am not ashamed that I supported the war; because the reasons why I did were compelling moral reasons, not disgraceful ones - reasons very much of the kind I believe Johann himself held at the time, reasons to do, precisely, with 'solidarity with suffering strangers'. When I recant on that is when I'll be ashamed of myself.
Of course, it may be said that all Johann means by 'recantation' is change of mind. But the word has, whether he likes it or not, religious connotations, as well as sordid associations with the history of the left. It evokes the taint of heresy and of wanting to be saved; it evokes humiliating rituals of self-criticism - comrade. If you'd like to know how I feel about this notion, and to know about the prospects of a time when I will recant over not having marched on 15 February 2003, please be my guest once more and read about George Jones's lawnmower. Beyond that, it is just because so much of the liberal-left today thinks in terms of a recantation being necessary from those of us who supported the war, showing themselves unable to comprehend how liberals or socialists could possibly have favoured regime change in Iraq, that that section of the left is in the sorry state it is, stumbling around like a hopeless drunk, a proper object of pity and derision.